A vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, will be given to boys in England for the first time, the UK government announced on Tuesday.
The injection – which protects boys against the virus, which can cause oral, throat and anal cancer – will be given to teens aged 12 to 13.
Thousands of boys are expected to receive the HPV vaccine each year, beginning from 2019.
The vaccine is already routinely offered to girls of the same age. Tuesday’s announcement brings English health policy into line with that in Scotland and Wales. Few other countries in the world offe the injection to both genders.
It is thought the vaccine will also help reduce the overall number of cervical cancers in women, though a process known as “herd immunity.”
“This extended program offers us the opportunity to make HPV-related diseases a thing of the past and build on the success of the girls’ program, which has already reduced the prevalence of HPV 16 and 18, the main cancer-causing types, by over 80%,” said Mary Ramsay, head of immunizations at Public Health England, in a statement.
How does the vaccine work?
HPV is a group of 150 related viruses that can be transmitted through any form of sexual contact, whether kissing or intercourse. In most cases, the human body will get rid of it naturally, but certain high-risk types can develop into things like genital warts and cancers.
However the vaccine is a mimic of the virus particle; when administered into someone’s muscle, it creates many more antibodies than a natural infection would, according to John Doorbar, professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Cambridge.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “almost every person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.”
The vaccine needs to be given before a person is exposed to HPV. Its effectiveness in terms of preventing infections is well known – 100% in some studies.
In England, between 2010 and 2016, infections with HPV 16 and 18 fell 86% among women 16 to 21 who were eligible for the vaccine during this period, Public Health England found.
CNN’s Dominic Rech contributed to this report.